Interview: Jim Basnight of The Moberlys

It’s not everyday that you get to interview a musician who has been in the industry for over 40 years and continues to make great music, showing that you can make great music at any point in life. It’s a real special treat to have Jim Basnight of Seattle power pop band The Moberlys with us. Seattle is nowadays best known for grunge, but the Pacific Northwest is more than that! Garage rock was really big in the Pacific Northwest and remember that Jimi Hendrix was from Seattle, even though most of us associate him more with London.

To give you some context, what is power pop exactly? It’s a subgenre of classic rock that started in the mid 60s and it’s pop rock with melodic, catchy hooks and punchy guitar riffs, vocal harmonies, optimistic 60s sound, it’s music you can sing along and party to! The first power pop sounds can be heard in The Who and The Beach Boys. Pete Townshend described The Who’s music in 1967 as power pop. Power pop wasn’t just a mid-late 60s thing though. It was popular in the early 70s with bands like Badfinger, The Raspberries, and Big Star and came back in the late 70s and early 80s with bands like The Knack, XTC, The Romantics, Cheap Trick, The Nerves, the list goes on and on.

Jim Basnight’s latest release is a reprint of an out of print album called Seattle-New York-Los Angeles. Stanton Swihart of AllMusic called it “the rawest and most passionate power pop of the decade”. He’s got big plans for the year including a European tour and the release of a new book about Sonny Boy Williamson II. His music has gotten praise from critics all over the world. He’s also releasing Jokers, Idols, and Misfits on vinyl in August and he has a single being released in June. He’s definitely making the most of 2021!

If you want to learn more about Jim Basnight, his story, and his music, keep on reading!

Angie Moon: How would you describe yourself and your music to a new listener?

Jim Basnight: Rock and Roll. Derivative of the history of rock and roll from the earliest electric blues to perhaps 90’s rock. Not big on digital instruments, sampling, perfect time and pitch and records with no song. It’s all about the feel to me.

Angie: How did you get started as a musician?

Jim: I learned to play the guitar as a little kid. Learned songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Gloria,” “The Last Time,” “All Day and All of the Night,” “Dirty Water,” “The Witch,” “Foxy Lady,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Proud Mary,” and studied Beatles guitar books. After learning lots of songs from guitar books (sheet music), as the late 60’s turned into the early 70’s, I started getting into Glam Rock and studied David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, and Iggy Pop songs on guitar. I then formed a band called the Lovaboys (named after a lyric in a Dolls song), doing “Glam” covers in early 1975, after being in a few bands as a kid and a teenager doing contemporary rock (now considered classic rock like Deep Purple, Zeppelin, Stones, Hendrix and Alice Cooper. The Lovaboys led to my first original band, The Meyce. Once I was writing songs and the thrill that comes from writing and playing original rock and roll with other folks, that became my sole focus and has stayed that way since.

Angie: What was Seattle’s music scene like in the 60s and 70s?

Jim: It was very cool in the 60’s. I used to hear the Sonics and the Wailers on the local AM station and the DJ’s talking about those teen dance band’s appearances, but I was too young to go. I saw a couple of concerts in the 60’s, Creedence, Jefferson Airplane and a few bands at a couple of teen fairs, like Spencer Davis Group, The American Breed, and a local hippie band at a “Be-in” with my dad, who were on ABC Records called the Crome Syrcus.

In the 70’s, it all started picking up, as my parents let me go to shows with my friends. I saw Santana and Arlo Guthrie in 1971, the Faces and a few others in ’72 and Alice Cooper, T-Rex and a bunch of others in ’73. Once I turned 16 in July ’73, it started getting out of hand. By 1975, I was involved with a local fanzine called Chatterbox and we used to get free tickets to shows and interview bands at their hotel and back stage sometimes.

By the time the Meyce played our first gig on May 1st 1976 (the first DIY “punk” show on the west coast and predating London’s first by one week), my friends and I were on the way to starting a very cool underground original music scene in Seattle. The Meyce played for almost a year until March 6th, 1977, when we opened for the Ramones, the first time they played in Seattle. After speaking to the Ramones and their crew and being very encouraged by what they said about us, I decided to move to NYC in April 1977. I stayed there until late August ’77 and saw a bunch of great shows and met a number of people in the business. I decided not to stay though. Instead, I decided to put out a single, which I did in late ’77 in Seattle. In 1978, after a few attempts at putting together a Seattle band to support some pretty nice success I had from the single, I finally arrived on the Moberlys as a name and that first lineup lasted until early 1980. After the first Moberlys broke up, when the managers we were working with there were unable to get us a major record deal, I decided to move to NYC again in 1980.

Angie: What brought you to New York City in 1980?

Jim: I had made some good contacts there and I wanted to follow up with them. Seattle was not a great place to do music, despite a bunch of very talented bands, many among my friends. Also the Moberlys released an album of our various recordings, which garnered a lot of national press, including being chosen as #3 Underground Record Of The Year in Trouser Press. At that time, long before the internet, that was major ink for an indie band. That record and other tracks from that first version of the Moberlys was released on CD on the Bear Family (German) label in 1996 as “Sexteen.”

So I formed a version of the Moberlys in NYC and played there, as well as with a few NY acts. We came very close to getting a record deal and were being managed by some very big time folks, but I was getting burnt out there. NYC was moving away from rock and roll and the west coast seemed to be a better platform, plus I had so many contacts in Seattle. So I moved back and formed a 3rd version of the band with the guys who played on all the tracks on “Seattle-NY-LA.”

Angie: What do you like best about classic rock?

Jim: I love the fact that it’s played by real musicians who were more interested in playing music than the business, the fame and the phoney marketing that goes with it for the most part. The songs are great. I don’t believe great songs are written often on digital platforms. I think the great songs of rock and roll are written either on a guitar, a piano or with a whole band working together as one instrument.

Angie: What are your favourite classic rock albums and musicians?

Jim: I love Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited), Beatles (Revolver), Stones (Flowers), Kinks (Face to Face), Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow), The Who (Sell Out), Them (Them), Jimi Hendrix (Axis: Bold as Love), CCR (Willie and the Poor Boys), The Doors (The Doors), Moby Grape (Moby Grape) and the Velvet Underground (Velvet Underground and Nico) from the 1960’s.

From the 70’s I love George Harrison (All Things Must Pass), Carol King (Tapestry), Rod Stewart and the Faces (Every Picture Tells a Story), T. Rex (The Slider), Bowie (Aladdin Sane), Iggy and the Stooges (Raw Power), Lou Reed (Transformer), Bad Company (Straight Shooter), New York Dolls (New York Dolls), Badfinger (Straight Up), Heartbreakers (LAMF), Alice Cooper (Killer), Blondie (Parallel Lines), The Ramones (Rocket to Russia), Thin Lizzy (Jailbreak), Runaways (Queens of Noise) and Sly Stone (There’s a Riot Goin’ On).

The 80’s were kind of spotty for me, though I did like ACDC (Back in Black), The Replacements (Don’t Tell a Soul), Prince (Parade), Joan Jett (Bad Reputation) and Bowie (Scary Monsters).

The 90’s were about the same as the 80’s for me, though I did like Nirvana (Nevermind), Alice in Chains (Dirt), Social Distortion (Social Distortion) and Oasis ((What’s the Story) Morning Glory?). Nothing jumps out in the 2000’s and that’s basically after the end of the classic rock era, by most metrics.

I think it’s worth adding that I’m especially into NW bands. Some of the acts from the NW who have distinguished themselves over time (I consider them classics), besides Hendrix, were Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Sonics, The Dynamics, The Daily Flash, The Heats, The Cowboys, the Pudz, Billy Rancher, The Brandos, The Girls, and the Modernettes.

Angie: What was it like writing and recording your album Seattle-NY-LA?

Jim: It was a fantastic experience. I wrote the songs in Seattle, NY, and LA, so it’s truth in advertising. These songs were the ones I wrote as I travelled around in pursuit of a record deal through these towns, after the indie success of The Moberlys LP and a few singles. We did release one album in 1985 on a French indie label called Lolita. It was a combination of new material and stuff already released in the US. The band played hard and worked hard. I rehearsed them really hard, as we made our way from place to place. I guess it’s an album which is the culmination of a lot of recordings and tunes. The best of that wonderful creative period that was incredibly satisfying, I believe for all of us and our friends.

Angie: How do you think your music and songwriting has evolved and changed since the late 70s?

Jim: I tried so many different ways to write songs, as I pushed forward through the 80’s and up to today. I tried working with different instruments and different types of rock and roll. But, the bottom line is rock and roll. It’s what motivated me to begin this journey in the ’60’s. I think writing with other folks, which I largely started doing in the late 80’s has been a great awakening. I think that going back over the over 500 tunes I’ve written and finding excellent sections, which I perhaps couldn’t identify when I wrote the song, then writing a new song which includes it or around it. Perhaps taking two outstanding sections or more and creating a new song.

As time has moved forward I find both writing a song from scratch or writing a song from a good idea, whether it is mine from the past or someone else’s idea in the present are all equally incredible. Songs do more to connect people than anything I’ve found and I love to connect them. Over the last 20 years I’ve constantly been engineering medleys of cover songs, such as “Prince Jones Davies Suite” on “Jokers, Idols and Misfits.” It is a craft in and of itself and I love to connect other peoples tunes, as well as bring my own together.

Angie: How do you think the music industry has changed since you started making music?

Jim: There’s no similarity between today’s music business and what it was when I first started, say in 1976. There’s many books written on this subject, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ll summarise to say, the music business was started by people crazed by the rock and roll feeling which was about inclusion and liberation and it gradually became about exclusion and formula. Digital technology was great in that it has provided new generations access to the archives of rock and roll history, but the idea that it can replace bands, musicians, singers, etc. is far from reaching fruition. My hope is that the kids coming up and the enlightened tech developers will create new technology which brings people together again and enables the place in the human soul where song comes from to speak clearly, not through opaque and atrophied mechanisms.

Angie: How did you get into sports journalism?

Jim: After living in LA from 1985-92 (I moved down there with the Moberlys who did the Seattle-NY-LA album, Glenn Oyabe, Toby Keil and the late Dave Drewry), I moved back to Seattle, where I soon formed the Rockinghams with Jack Hanan and Criss Crass, as well as played solo gigs to pay my bills. Jack had been in a couple of Seattle bands who had been huge locally and Criss had just left the Muffs, who had just put out their first album on Warner Bros.

I also released my first CD album “Pop Top” in 1993, followed by “Sexteen” in ’96, “The Jim Basnight Thing” in ’97 and finally “Makin’ Bacon” with the Rockinghams in 1999. When I bought a house in 1997, I had to look at increasing my income, so I started booking shows in clubs, casinos and fairs. That was a good tool to get gigs as well and I expanded my gigs further from the Seattle area. That also worked well for the booking, because in the major markets like Seattle WA and Portland OR, there was a lot of corporate competition to book and produce gigs.

I released “Seattle-NY-LA” on the Pop The Balloon (France) label in 2001 and starting in 1993 I released over 35 tracks on compilation albums up to today. So, I continued to expand my regular gigging territory, as well as my connections and made some decent money between the live gigs and the booking, by around 2003. I then released an album called “Recovery Room” in 2004, mostly just to sell at my 200+ gigs a year, which I had been working on for a few years, while doing all of the live gigs and bookings.

I really didn’t understand how to engage with the music business at large, so I just built my own. At that time, I decided to start to move out of the concert booking and producing biz and just do gigs (unless something very good came along), which worked well for a couple of years. In 2005 I was asked by some friends to publish a sports site for a network who soon was bought by Yahoo.com.

I was able to supplement my income from the gigs and do nearly all of that work, while playing gigs on the road from hotel rooms via the net. I developed a staff of writers and photographers to cover the sports events and press conferences and published and edited the site for the network. By 2008 I had saved enough move into a new house. I decided that I didn’t want to work for the network anymore. So at that point I kept the sports coverage going, on an indie level, as I had developed so many contacts, while focusing on gigging, as well as raising my kid.

In 2011, I was asked to help a production company to continue research on “Sonny Boy Williamson” (Alex Miller), which had been done in the late 90’s and very early 2000’s, but had been held up by financing. I started that project, which I had negotiated a partnership and an ability to do it around my music gigs, in January 2012. It really helped that I grew to understand investigative journalism through the sports experience and fact checking, copy editing, etc.

Angie: Why did you decide to write a book about Sonny Boy Williamson?

Jim: I had been interested in Sonny Boy since 1995, when I dug deeper into his work then I had before. I had heard his albums with the Yardbirds and the Animals and had not been much impressed. In ’95 I was co-composing a musical for a Seattle theatre, Little Rock, based on the 1957 desegregation of the first nationally discussed public high school in the Deep South. It was my job to bring in blues, rockabilly, 50’s pop and early rock and roll influences to the score and I dug into the Rhino Bluesmasters series for the blues. During that time, I found unbelievable musical gems and one of them was “Sonny Boy” a.k.a. “SBW2,” because there was a “Sonny Boy Williamson” before him who started recording nearly 15 years prior to SBW2’s first records.

But it was #2 who really thrilled me. He had a otherworldly ability to write and perform songs as well as one of a kind musical technique. He also had the astounding ability to improvise, much like a freestyle rapper, who simultaneously does the human beatbox, except he would also impersonate a full band, between his harp, his fingers and toes and his voice. Just unbelievable. I was also shocked at how many songs of his had been covered by some of my favourite rock acts, which I wasn’t aware were his.

Great songs such as “One Way Out” (Allman Brothers), “Don’t Start Me Talking” (New York Dolls), “Help Me” (Van Morrison), “Eyesight to the Blind” (The Who), “Checking Up On My Baby” (Mick Jagger), “Bring it on Home” (Led Zeppelin) and “Bye Bye Bird” (Moody Blues). I also found easily double that amount of great songs of his, not done by bands I was already aware of. I then came to find out how important he was in introducing the blues to radio in America and what a big role he played while he was in the UK in the last two years of his life (1963-65), along side a virtual who’s who of the British Invasion and acts like Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood, and many others who performed with him and were heavily impressed by him as young kids.

I then found out about the adversity he faced in life. I felt it was my calling to make sure this story is communicated to the world I know. He was a big part of laying the groundwork for rock and roll and passed, just as I entered the picture, when I saw the Beatles movie Help in ’65, then got a transistor radio in 1966.

Angie: What do you wish people understood about Sonny Boy Williamson and other blues musicians?

Jim: Just how important they were. How the blues is not some old, well worn art form. How it was a revelation and the true blueprint of American and consequently a ton of the world’s music in the late 20th century through today. In 100 years, since the first blues records (around 1920), it has become the primary musical influence in the world. I think that hip-hop, rock and roll, country, dance, soul and all subgenres derive from the blues largely and the African American musical tradition in general.

Angie: What have you been listening to lately?

Jim: So much music. When I took on the “Sonny Boy” project I shifted my focus backward, to the eras prior to my time. Pre-1966 and more often before I was born in 1957. In fact I put a lot of my focus on the era before rock and roll, but mostly during the era of electric blues.

I guess the time leading up to that as well. I’d say 1930’s forward. I’ve also become focused on the underground power pop” and rock and roll scenes that have surfaced, mostly via the net on podcasts, cable TV, a few scattered indie rock radio stations and specialty radio shows. Big Stir Records has a lot of great stuff. I’m also very into Little Steven’s Underground Garage, plus a few great weekly and some daily shows around the world. What they generally do is play new acts, but sprinkle in stuff you may have missed, obscure things that already interest me and the occasional classic. Is there one or two acts I can point to, like the Beatles and the Stones in 1964, Hendrix and the Velvets in 1968, Bowie and Bolan in 1972 or the Ramones and the Heartbreakers in 1976? No, but I think there are very positive signs or rock and roll emerging from the ice age that has been caused by digital technology and corporate strangulation in my view.

Angie: What are your goals and plans for this year?

Jim: To travel to Europe, Ireland and the UK to play. To do more great US dates again, post COVID. To publish the biography of Sonny Boy, which is currently being edited. To release all of my albums and their individual tracks as downloadable and streaming products. To see my kid enter her junior year of college. To stay healthy. To share love.

Angie: Any advice for aspiring musicians and any words for your fans?

Jim: Feel is more important than anything. How many notes you play is meaningless. Sophisticated words in songs are also meaningless. Bring everything forth, clear and sparsely and when you do a song, make sure you feel something meaningful to you, whether it’s a soft song or a loud hard song. Feel something, don’t play pretty or ugly music. Play music that comes from you and let someone else decide what it is.

For my fans? Thanks for your continued support and encouragement. I never stopped believing in myself and you are the reason. I love you.

You can follow Jim on his website and Twitter.

Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!

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